‘Do Not Track’ is a semi-new concept in the digital world that tells advertisers to not track user Internet activity for the purposes of serving targeted advertising. What happens is, when enabled, a header is sent to along with every web request you make containing either a 1 for ‘I don’t want to be tracked’ or a 0 for ‘You can track me’. If there is no DNT (‘Do Not Track’) header present, then you are likely going to be tracked. Of course the responsibility for DNT is on browsers; browsers must have this functionality built-in before users can use it. Microsoft, it seems, is taking this duty to a whole new level by enabling ‘Do Not Track’ by default in Internet Explorer 10.
Microsoft’s Chief Privacy Officer Brendon Lynch has wrote in a blog post DNT will be enabled in the ‘Express Settings’ of Windows 8. Anyone that accepts these ‘Express Settings’ will have DNT turned on; anyone that chooses to manually customize the settings can disable DNT, if desired. It isn’t entirely clear how DNT will work in Internet Explorer 10 for Windows 7 but Microsoft hints at DNT being enabled by default on Windows 7, too.
It may be asked why Microsoft is doing this. According to Lynch, privacy of users is a “top priority” for Microsoft which is why Microsoft insists on leaving DNT on by default despite the outcry from advertisers. The astute reader may note, however, Microsoft really isn’t that big in online advertising despite spending billions of dollars to gain market share with Bing. As such, a DNT header will hurt Microsoft’s competitors (i.e. Google) more than it will hurt Microsoft, and Microsoft may be able to use the “we-respect-your-privacy” line to win over privacy-conscious consumers from not only other browsers but also from Android to Windows Phone. This very well could be a case of we-both-hurt-but-you-hurt-more. Alternatively, this may be Microsoft’s attempt to appease regulators who are increasingly at its throat.
Whatever the case may be, advertisers aren’t happy. In and of itself, it has been hard to get advertisers on board with the DNT initiative (because serving targeted ads is the bread and butter of online ads). You see DNT only works if advertisers heed the DNT header; if they ignore it, and there is no law in existence currently that forces advertisers to follow DNT, then DNT is useless. So it is imperative that advertisers support DNT, and slowly but surely advertisers were getting behind it. Even Google tentatively announced its support. Now, however, advertisers are pushing back against default DNT in Internet Explorer 10.
In an attempt to appease advertisers, the body responsible for setting the specifications of DNT announced DNT is only applicable if a user explicitly opts to use it. According to advertisers, having DNT enabled by default in Internet Explorer is not users explicitly opting to use DNT and as such advertisers can ignore the header. Microsoft, obviously, disagrees stating that users explicitly accept DNT by accepting ‘Express Settings’; anyone that doesn’t want to use DNT can easily change it and Microsoft clearly informs users of their choice in this matter. The European Commission and the US Congressional Privacy Caucus both have voiced public support for Microsoft’s stance while the US Federal Trade Commission supports the view that default DNT is not users deciding to use it.
It is hard to tell what the future will bring for online privacy and ‘Do Not Track’. However, it does look like this may be the make-or-break point for DNT and online advertising. If advertisers start ignoring IE10’s DNT, and are allowed to do so by governments, then it will effectively make DNT useless because the lack of compliance may snowball to other browsers. On the other hand, if IE10’s default DNT stands, then it may set a precedent for other browsers and may effectively change online advertising as we know it. Let’s see what happens.